This Week in Poverty: The Older Americans Act and US Seniors

By:  Greg Kaufmann

Honoring our grandparents, our elders—in these divisive times, at least we hold this value in common, right?

As children, we dutifully sat through long visits or lectures from older relatives, teachers, neighbors or family friends; and then wised up to learn that some of these relationships would prove our most enduring.

It’s enough to make you think that maybe—just maybe—this shared experience would lead to a steadfast commitment from policymakers to ensure that those who cared for us, fought for us, and raised us, are able to meet their basic needs.

But if you attended Senator Bernie Sanders’ hearing on reducing senior poverty and hunger through the Older Americans Act (OAA) on Wednesday, you were in for a rude awakening. 

Signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 at the same time as Medicare and Medicaid, the OAA provides federal funding for essential senior services like job training, caregiver support, transportation, preventative healthcare, meals, and protection from abuse and financial exploitation.  Funding for the legislation has failed to keep pace with inflation and population growth for decades.  Under sequestration, an additional $40 million will be cut from senior meal programs alone, which means that as many as 19 million fewer meals will be available to seniors who need them.

Sanders, Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging, noted in his opening remarks that OAA “programs not only work to ease isolation, hunger and suffering, they also save taxpayers substantial sums of money.”

“It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out,” said Sanders, with characteristic bluntness.  “If you’re malnourished, you’re going to get sick more often.  You may end up in the emergency room at great expense to Medicaid…If you’re weak and you fall and break your hip, you end up in the hospital, at an expense of tens and tens of thousands of dollars…We can feed a senior for an entire year for the cost of one day in a hospital.”

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